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Community members make pleas to save school programs

HAMBURG — The Hamburg Central School District’s proposed budget for 2014 – 2015 has cuts that include eliminating 26 positions, including 8.5 through layoffs, to help close the financial shortfall.

Incorporating these and other cuts would leave the district with a budget gap of $114,736. During the board’s April 2 budget workshop, members of the community pleaded that the board not slash music, sports or language programs.

The district was said to have partially closed an existing $2.2 million gap that existed recently, through the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment and restored funding in the amount of $427,000 – monies described by district officials as not enough, about half of last year’s restoration – to go along with employee retirement incentives totaling $845,788.

It was reported that five teachers (accounting for $550,214 in total savings) and 16 other staff members ($295,574 in savings) took advantage of the incentives. Although the budgeted state aid for this year for Hamburg has progressed by more than $247,000, school officials criticized the fiscal slashing/cutting process in Hamburg and many other school districts in New York state.

“What we did this year can’t go on. We can’t do this anymore,” District Superintendent Dr. Richard Jetter said, about the proposed cuts to teachers and programs. “It’s extremely heart-wrenching. I’m extremely sorry, and I apologize.” He acknowledged that employees who are cut “are professionals who have bills to pay and families to raise.”

School officials from Hamburg and throughout Western New York have recently taken part in anti-GEA rallies, advocating for more state aid, while speaking against the removal of funding.

“We can’t go through this every single year, like we do,” said Board Member Thomas Flynn, about a lack of state aid allocated and the subsequent reelections sought by NYS officials.

Director of Administrative Services Barbara Sporyz outlined fiscal updates for 2014 – 2015, explaining that areas that will remain intact – after previous consideration for tweaks or cuts – include Academic Intervention Services, counselor staffing at the elementary level, and the district’s finance academy. It was further noted that district officials will postpone implementing the health sciences academy, for staffing purposes. The district has until April 22 to formally adopt a budget.

The allowable tax levy increase for Hamburg in 2014 – 2015 is 4.23 percent, equaling $1,419,096. The overall projected expenditure budget is currently slated at $62,939,826, representing an increase of $2,689,226 from 2013 – 2014. It was reported that district officials would likely not pursue crafting a budget that would exceed the 4.23-percent tax increase threshold – a move that would have required at least 60 percent voter approval.

Mentioned reductions and adjustments that district officials said are moving forward include: reducing by 1.5 full time-equivalent counselors combined from the high and middle schools, measures stated as saving $110,665; implementing a rate change for substitute teachers, $96,000; reducing by one FTE in Spanish and one FTE (attrition through retirement) in French, thus eliminating sections 4A, 4 and 5 in each language and creating larger class sizes, $69,400; restructuring the buildings and grounds department to incorporate a reduction through vacancy, $62,226; eliminating assistant coaches in modified, junior varsity and varsity sports, except for football and swimming, $60,000; consolidating or eliminating some clubs, $55,000; cutting one FTE elementary health teacher, $44,896; abolishing a senior clerk-typist position (not replacing an individual who retired from the spot), $35,172; reducing counselor summer days, $20,000; eliminating late-late bus runs, $15,000; reducing a 12-month assistant high school principal position to that of 10 months, $14,000; discontinuing the district’s intramurals, $8,100; reducing Saturday detention in the district from weekly to bimonthly, $7,600; implementing a four-day work week for the summer schedule, $2,500; and instituting a paperless policy for the board of education, $2,100.

In total, layoffs are slated for four elementary teachers, one FTE at the high school learning center, a French and Spanish teacher at the high school and middle school, an elementary health teacher, a library media center teacher and the aforementioned 1.5 counseling positions from the high school and middle schools.

Board Vice President Sally Stephenson said that she was not pleased about the idea of cutting an elementary health teacher, and she stressed the importance of communicating information, particularly about the dangers of addiction, to children, at an early age.

Parents and community members spoke about the importance of music, sports and other programs. Local musician Mark Panfil said that music cuts would create a crippling effect that would set the district’s music program back “a decade.”

A parent asked why the district is not proposing a tax increase that is higher than the maximum threshold, as opposed to making program cuts. Board President David Yoviene replied that proposing a tax hike that would cover enough funding to balance the budget, estimated at approximately 7 percent, would likely not garner enough voter approval.

“To pull it off now, I think you’d be dreaming,” Yoviene said, about the chances that 60 percent of voters would approve such a proposal.

District residents Doreen Bruce, Kathleen Regan and Beth Walters also spoke against cuts to music. District English teacher Jill Reese added that program cuts affect both current and future students, as she estimated thousands of learning opportunities to be lost.

Also discussed was appropriate use of the district’s fund balance. One parent asked if more of Hamburg’s reserves – estimated at $2.5 million – could be used to offset more cuts. Sporyz replied that some monies are needed on hand for unforeseen expenses, as well as debt services and employee retirement system costs.

“That’s our safety net,” Sporyz said, explaining the difficulties in recommending a fair, yet sustainable, amount of monies from the reserves fund for an annual budget. She added that the district has not held a fund balance deemed “proper,” or as high as it could be, for the last three years.

Board Member Holly Balaya spoke in favor of saving programs/employee positions.

District parent Damon Beiter said that, although sports are a commodity in the district, academic programs should take priority. “You have to look at what’s important,” Beiter said. “[Academics] is why we send kids at 8 a.m.”

The school board was scheduled to meet at Union Pleasant Elementary School on April 8, for another budget workshop.

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